40th Anniversary of 20th May 75: A Partial Inside Story

This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that fateful day of 20th May 1975 that marked the first ever mass student demonstration in the history of our country.

As tens of thousands of secondary school students marched on Port Louis from Rose-Hill, they were met at the Grand River North West Bridge by the Riot Police armed with tear gas and batons. The degree of brutality used by the force was clearly out of proportion against unarmed youths who were out for a peaceful demonstration.

Although the call to “descend on the capital” the following day was made on the 19th during a protest in front of the Ministry of Education at Edith Cavell Street, Port Louis, it would be a mistake to think, like some would have us believe, that this was a “spontaneous” manifestation of anger and frustration.

In those days the vast majority of secondary schools, private as well as State colleges were found in the Plaines Willhems region for obvious logistical reasons. The vast majority of these were already in turmoil for days if not weeks before the fateful 20th of May. Although there would certainly have been some “school specific” incidents, which had caused students to get into a serious protest mood, nothing would be further from the truth than to state that the actual movement was caused by such random incidents.

There were a number of generic protest themes which ran through the 20th May movement. Among the most prominent ones were: the crying inequality between the treatment meted out to students attending private colleges as compared to those of State Schools, the colonial content of the educational textbooks which so many years after Independence still carried most of the stereotypes of the Eurocentric worldview, the terribly out-of-date pedagogical methods which still prevailed in classrooms. In short, the student movement called for a total overhaul of the system.

What remains essentially an untold story to this day, though, is how young students from several colleges (among which the most prominent were John Kennedy College, QEC, New Eton College, RCC and RCPL) had for years before 1975 been involved in several student fora, including the Ministry-sponsored cClubs which had been infiltrated to provide a platform for organization of “extracurricular” activities.

These were carried out by a multitude of “student movements” including the “Front National Pour la Libération des Etudiants ”(FNLE) the Student Club and others. They included regular organization of “forums” and debates after school hours (in private and State colleges alike) on a variety of themes like the need for equality of access to education, women’s liberation, the apartheid system in Southern Africa, the imperialist nature of the presence of foreign powers in the Indian Ocean including the United States’ occupation of Diego Garcia, the need to restore the Kreol language to its proper place in Mauritian society or the divisive politics of the “compradore” bourgeoisie and their “lackeys”.

Tiers-mondiste authors such as Paolo Freire, Frantz Fanon and Rene Dumont whose classic works, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Les Damnés de la Terre, and Peau Noire, Masques Blancs, and L’Afrique noire est mal partie respectively were, among others, the staple literature of the more politically alert of the students.

The need for the unity of the working classes and the role of students and intellectuals in creating political awareness and raising class consciousness were also hotly debated among the more radicalised sections of students who were then, for the most part, sympathetic to the positions of leftist political parties such as the MMM and the MMMSP (an early dissident faction of the MMM).

From 1974 onwards, as some of those students migrated to the University of Mauritius (UOM), the Students Union of the UOM played a singularly important role in the political awareness raising process. Pubic debates were held almost weekly in the fully packed Student’s Common Room as many “guest speakers” were invited to share their views on a variety of issues, highly political in nature. It was in this context that the Vice-Chancellor of the University was sequestered in his office for a number of hours for refusing to entertain some demands of the Union.

What is even more significant was that all this was being carried out during one of the most sombre periods of our political history when a ruling coalition had postponed the general elections due in 1972 and had subsequently imposed a State of Emergency in the country. Basic civil liberties such as the right to hold public meetings or the elementary right of assembly (any gathering of more than five persons was illegal) had been suspended under the dispositions of the Emergency.

Under the circumstances, the student movements and the ideas which they were propagating were decreed to be “subversive” and most of the student leaders were under constant police surveillance.

Looking back over those days it would seem that what saved those student leaders from being summarily arrested – under the State of Emergency, political leaders were arrested and jailed for almost a year without any charges brought against them — was the fact that the ruling coalition for all its ruthlessness was pretty weak and did not have the support of public opinion. Police action against the students either on the school/university premises was a red line which most in government were probably very reluctant to cross in spite of the inevitable “hawks” who certainly had less scruples.

Political parties, the trade unions and the student movement all contributed to change the political environment which rendered the Emergency measures untenable.

Finally, in 1976, new elections were announced and organized on December 20. On the eve of the elections, in his last address to the electorate, Dr Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the then Prime Minister, announced that the Labour Party would provide free education to all Mauritians if it came back to power. Although the cynicism of such opportunism was decried by all his adversaries, there is no doubt that this measure has been one of the most progressive taken by any government since Independence. For all its faults, free education has further consolidated the Welfare State in the island.

On the occasion of this 40th anniversary, the May 75 generation may justifiably feel that their actions contributed largely to this achievement.

 

* Published in print edition on 22 May  2015

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